SWM 2014: Vietnam: raising awareness and challenging prejudice in the media
Case study by Hanna Hindstrom
In 2011, the Hanoi-based Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), supported by MRG, launched a new campaign to boost coverage of the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples in the media.
‘As the public knew very little about ethnic minority rights and the duties of the state, the project was intended to improve their knowledge and increase social discussion on these issues,’ says iSEE’s media manager, Thao Vu Phuong.
Indeed, discussion of rights rarely features in the media. Meanwhile, research carried out by iSEE has exposed deep-rooted prejudices and ignorance about minority and indigenous communities.
‘A 2009 iSEE study on the media’s portrayal of ethnic minorities in Vietnam found that 69 per cent of 500 studied articles were “biased” or “strongly biased” against ethnic minority people,” says Vu.
It was in this context that iSEE decided to raise awareness among civil society, policymakers and the media. In 2012, the institute reprinted and circulated thousands of booklets containing the UN Declaration on Minorities and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in urban and local communities.
These texts were later used as the basis for training seminars for journalists, development professionals and policymakers. iSEE immediately received positive feedback, with participants noting that it was the first time they had seen this material, despite having worked with minority and indigenous communities for years.
A group of 15 reporters were taken on a field trip to meet with ethnic Hmong and Yao people in Van Chan district, Yen Bai province, some 200 km north-west of Hanoi. The journalists eagerly immersed themselves in the local culture, discussing identity politics and the lifestyles of minorities and indigenous peoples in a manner previously unseen. The project resulted in dozens of positive articles about minority and indigenous communities in Vietnam, tackling issues from culture to the right to language.
‘After conducting several projects and programmes to combat media and social stigma against ethnic minorities, we found that on the surface the situation got better gradually,’ says Vu:
‘Lately we rarely see any articles carrying prejudice or using negative words to describe ethnic minorities. Terms and phrases repeatedly used by iSEE, such as “respecting insiders’ voices”, “celebrating cultural diversity” or “the rights of ethnic minorities”, have become increasingly popular in the media. Negative labels like “lazy”, “backward” or “reliant” have largely disappeared.’
But many challenges still lie ahead, with civic and political rights overwhelmingly absent from public discourse. ‘Beneath the surface, there is still a lack of independent and critical reporting,’ explains Vu. ‘Policies for ethnic minorities are not questioned or even discussed in the media. Substantial issues affecting the community life of ethnic minorities, such as community land ownership and cultural rights, are hardly touched on.’
The thirst for sensational pieces, resulting from the pressure of earning more views or selling more papers, is also a challenge.The media seem to be caught in a dilemma between producing well-considered, accurate discussions and the temptation of developing ‘catchy’ articles that risk being stigmatizing or discriminatory. Or at least, that is how many reporters have treated ethnic minority issues.
Vu insists that more effort must be put into training media workers on cultural diversity, along with more independent research on Vietnamese public policy and indigenous peoples. ‘The Vietnamese media are moving towards less negative portrayals of ethnic minorities and better recognition of their values and contributions,’ she says. ‘But journalists should be encouraged to make more nuanced and positive reporting.’
This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.
Photo: A H'mong woman gives her child a treat after returning from the market to her village in neighbouring Ha Giang province. Credit: iSEE